Doctors in the Gulf Coast region need to be alert to both the short and long-term health effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, U.S. health experts said on Monday.
Prior oil spills have shown that contact with oil and chemicals can affect the lungs, kidneys, and liver, and the mental strain can boost rates of anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress as many as six years later.
The magnitude of the BP Plc spill is a far greater worry, said Dr. Gina Solomon, an environmental medicine expert at the University of California at San Francisco and a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.
"The oil spill has been discussed at length as an ecological disaster. The discussions about the health effects have been more limited," said Solomon, who wrote a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Based on a review of studies from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and spills in Spain, Korea and elsewhere, Solomon cited four main areas of concern from a health perspective.
"No. 1 is air quality, which was maybe the biggest concern early on when the well was still leaking, but it fortunately is improving now that the oil flow has stopped," Solomon said in a telephone interview.
"The second is skin contact with the oil," she said, which largely affects clean-up workers along Gulf Coast beaches.
She said oil contamination of seafood is also a serious concern as fisheries have been reopened. "The main fisheries in the Gulf include shrimp and oysters, which happen to be very inefficient in clearing oil-related spills," she said.
And mental health issues also are becoming a major concern, as thousands of Gulf Coast fishermen face financial ruin because of the spill.
"That area was just beginning to recover from (Hurricane) Katrina. They were hit again with the economic downturn. This is really the triple whammy," Solomon said.
"Psychological distress will be widespread."
A survey of 599 local residents done a year after the Exxon Valdez spill found that people who had been exposed to the spill were 3.6 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder, 2.9 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder and 2.1 times more likely to show signs of depression.
None of these issues are new, Solomon said.
"The point is to notify healthcare providers and physicians along the Gulf Coast about what they should be looking for."
She said doctors should focus specifically on the skin, respiratory tract and nervous system, keeping track of any symptoms that might be spill-related.
Research into the health effects of oil spills is notoriously spotty and calls for better research after a major oil spill are common, but Solomon said this time may be different.
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins has pledged at least $10 million to study the potential health effects of the oil spill.
And on Tuesday, the NIH will hold its first public teleconference launching the "Gulf Worker Study," which will look at the short and long-term health effects of oil spill clean-up workers and volunteers.
The study will focus on exposure to oil and dispersant products and potential health consequences such as respiratory, neurobehavioral, carcinogenic, and immunological conditions. It will also look at mental health concerns.
"The worst thing we could do right now is let this oil spill happen and then not learn a lesson on from it," Solomon said.